She set out in her teens to make hats; little did she know then that hat-making would make her great. That is the story of Grace Chito Mark. But that was just the beginning.
There were huddles; no one wanted to identify with locally made hats until she was discovered by powerful, society folks. “There was this lady,’’ said Grace Chito Mark, “a lady that I will never forget in my life. She became a mentor to me. She is no other person than Aunty Labanella, Hajia Abah Folawiyo, God used her to open the door for me.” Her ‘Graces hat’ became a household name among society folks; even the US First Lady Mrs Michelle Obama, now wears her hat. Grace Mark shares her lifestyle with us, in this interview with Paul Ukpabio.
Who is Grace Chito Mark
Let’s find out.
From just making hats, you became well known among top society folks. Tell us how long have you been in hat-making business?
I have been at it for the past 30 years. That is what we have been doing and God has been helping. Right now it looks as if we have just even started.
How could that be, when you look so young?
That is true. That is actually a good observation because each time I tell somebody how old I am in the business, they start thinking about my age. They start imagining my age considering my looks. But Graces Hat has been there for a while, so it is normal to expect that people will expect an elderly woman to be in charge. I started in 1980 when I finished my school certificate examination. I started very early in life. I was young. That doesn’t also mean that I am as young in age as I presently look.
So what gave you the inspiration to set out in business at that time that some would consider tender age?
At that time, I had a senior sister in Enugu where I grew up. She came over one day, and saw me fiddling with needlework attending to my class work and cutting out things. She just dropped the idea on my lap that very moment when she said: ‘I think that you can make hats.’ The message was dropped casually like that. But I immediately believed that it was what God wanted me to do. God just used her to release the message.
After Queens School in Enugu, I had a brief period that I was at home doing nothing much. I had a lot of time on my hand. I chose that period to start fiddling with my hand. That also was because a seed had been sown in my heart. I felt this is the purpose for which He created me, the purpose for which I was born. The ability came naturally to me. My hands flowed with it and before I knew it, I was creating beautiful hats.
Also at that time, I loved wearing hats. But I couldn’t afford the kind of hats that I loved wearing. So that was when I started wearing those beautiful pieces I made to church and before I knew it, I had started attracting attention. People had started noticing my hats. The bold ones came closer and asked if I had started importing hats from abroad. And a particular woman stooped to ask specifically about my hat after church and I told her that I actually make them myself. She asked me how much I was making them. I told her N10, and she gave me money for three. It was then it dawned on me, that it was a business, that it was not just about me making hats for myself but also making for other people to use. It was suddenly beyond me.
At that point, I started thinking of where I could get the needed materials to make more. Out there in 1980, there were no ready places where one could source materials for hat making. Everyone then was used to importing the hats they used. Back then, I had not heard of anyone in Nigeria who was making hearts that I could fall back on. But by the grace of God, He led me on.
So Enugu gave you the seed
Yes, Enugu did that for me. I went on to the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT) where I studied Corporate Economics and Management, and while I was doing that, I was still making hats as a hobby because it became a passion, people started ordering for hats. Even when I moved to Kaduna where I did my Youth Service, I continued. Making hats had turned into a life for me. No day went without me making hats.
From Kaduna, I took a decision to move to Lagos, where my sister was living. That was how I arrived Lagos and started moving from one shop to another, letting people know about the hats that I was making.
However, not much was achieved because a lot of people then were wearing imported hats. They didn’t welcome locally made hats or headpiece. But there was this lady that I will never forget in my life. She became a mentor to me. She is no other person than Aunty Labanella, Hajia Abah Folawiyo.
When she saw me, she said: ‘Young girl, come, come, come, I think you can make some things with my materials.’ And you know she had always been working with the ‘who is who’ in this country. That was where I also met Funmi Ajila who is today our Fashion Designer Association of Nigeria (FADAN) President.
Immediately Funmi Ajila saw me, it was such that our spirits united because since then, we have had a good relationship. That was how aunty Labanella gave me some fabrics and I made different things for some Minister’s wives. When people saw those ones, they wanted theirs too. So I got several referrals from many top people. Sooner, even those who didn’t want to do anything with locally made hats started calling on me, making orders for hats. I got a good response.
Also the ban on importation and promotion of locally made goods by the Buhari/Idiagbon government gave a boost to my business then. People started patronising my locally made hats more. With God, all these were possible because without Him, nothing would have been possible. In my business, I accept God as a senior partner. I couldn’t have come this far without Him.
All your hats look different and you have been doing it over the years, and the designs have kept changing. Where do you get the designs?
The designs come everyday to me. Most of the time, it is when I am worshipping God. So the secret for me is that most times during the day, I am usually praising God within me. That way, I attract the inspiration for new designs.
Design ideas also come to me when I look into people’s face, when I pay attention to nature and other God’s creation. It comes to me when I admire flowers, colours and so on. It comes anytime of the day. Sometimes, the designs come to me like video clips. Sometimes it is in my sleep, I see someone modelling hats. It comes so natural to me, to the extent that even when I make mistakes, it turns around to be something else through creativity. I don’t beg God for this, it just flows, God continuously pours the talent on me. What I do is praise Him.
Was your success an instant boom?
No success comes with a bang like that. It takes a while and I have been able to pass through that process and challenges.
What does success now mean to you?
Success to me is continuity of passion. It is a continuity of whatever is inside of you despite whatever that is challenging you in form of struggles, economic down turn and other limitations.
At what point did love set in for you?
I got married in 1992. I had already moved up with my passion, the business had been established. I met my life partner in church, he saw what I was doing and he liked it. He has been a source of encouragement for me in this business. He has been like the missing link for me, which fitted into my scheme of things. And that has also been the same way that I fitted into his life. We have been a perfect match for each other and ours was love at first sight.
So many years after, how has your marriage been?
Every day in marriage has been a newday. It is like we have just started. All through the years, he has been doing the same good things that he used to do when we met. He has been a supporting pillar to me. He has not deviated from his good deeds.
How have you been able to manage your business and marriage as a working mother?
My marriage has been a cordial one. My husband responds positively to me over the years, he even wants our marriage to grow better. Managing success, managing a business and managing marriage are all different things that must work together for the success of a marriage. And this depends on the individual. Most women react differently to this. For instance, before I got married, there were many people that would have come to me, but because I was already successful, they were afraid. But I am from a good background.
Success did not remove my personality which had already been formed. I had family values and training to enable me be the person I should be and also be a good wife when the time arrived. So business success did not change me or take away who I had already been. So all I needed as a wife and a woman of God was to blend the business success and my marriage and make sure that the business does not suffer and at the same time, the marriage doesn’t suffer. So it is important to blend the two.
But as a young successful lady, how does one identify a serious man who is not just coming for the money?
I believe that every human being has an internal intuition. I also believe that, as a young lady, when you see your man, your flesh of flesh and your bone of bone, you will know, except you do not have that perceiving spirit to know what is right or that which is wrong. And for the young ladies who do not have that intuitive spirit, they should enter into marriage with faith and work it out. Marriage mostly is about the woman because the woman is the one that builds the home. A lot of men are afraid of the ‘successful woman.’ But what I advise men are that they should look and go beyond the lady’s success and ask that lady for marriage.
Most people that have had relationships with successful women found out they have the best of wives. They later found out that if they had listened to the sentiment that the successful women may not respect them and as such had ended the relationship, that they would have missed the blessings that God sent to them through such women. So successful women are respectful and you are likely to find out that they also had good training from home. And they are also crowned with financial blessings, which God has visited upon them and the blessing should not be criteria for a man to ignore them or not marry them.
Tell us one or two challenges that you have faced in time past, which could have broken you down completely.
Sad, fire once burnt down my entire shop. That was in 2003. For a lot of people, they would have hit the street, gone into depression or taken to all manner of things. But because I had God, I was still focused. Now, this place is even bigger and better. Then it was even smaller in space. God needed to bring it down in order to enlarge it.
There have been other challenges mostly those that focus on the cost of doing and running a business generally in Nigeria. The government just has to intervene to help business people survive. However, government has been helping in recent times to grow a lot of small businesses unlike then when banks could not give loans. the banks through government policies have been more cooperative in helping small businesses; if they look at your books and see that all is well, some banks do help.
You love accessories.
Yes I do, it goes well with fashionable hats. The head gear itself is usually complementary to fashion. I love accessories, they make a woman complete.
Which accessories would you not do without?
I usually have on my earrings, a conspicuous one at that. I am not a very loud person naturally, so I allow the hat and the loud earrings to make the statement. As a lady, the earrings are important though some people do not use them. You hardly see me without an earring in my ears.
Tell us about your style
I wear what fits me. I do not insist on the current rave of fashion that much. I rather go for what fits me. I wear both traditional and western clothes but as a rule, I do not do tying of wrapper, that’s because it does not fit me. So what I do is to turn it into a skirt or into things that fit me. That is my own style. When I do that and step out, I get lovely compliments because they fit. It is better than copying what other people are wearing, which may not at the end of day be befitting on my body.
Do you have leisure time?
I try to. I create time to do my exercises and then to worship my God. I travel too, rest and then return to work.
You are in the business of making women beautiful. So what does beauty mean to you?
I would not like to separate beauty from fashion; that is because every woman to me is beautiful. For me, even when people generally say a particular person is not beautiful, I take a second look, and then I see the beauty. That is because God has deposited something beautiful in everybody. It is not because I am a creative person that I see it, but because it is obvious that nobody is ugly in the sense that we are unique in different ways. What one person may see as beautiful is different from what another will consider as beautiful.
Some people consider fair skinned ladies beautiful but another may think black is beautiful. Also, if you look at most of today’s female models, they may not be outstandingly beautiful facially, but by the time you look again, you suddenly notice some unique features about them that equally stand them out. There is something unique about every human. It is left for the lady to carry herself well and know within her that she is beautiful.
Well then, when is a woman glamorous?
A woman is glamorous when she goes the extra mile to make herself beautiful. I have a client whose presence cannot be ignored. Her earrings are usually long and loud. She wears her hair big, belts up and carries a big bag. Usually when you see such glamorous people, they are usually in high heeled shoes, with exceptional nails, always walking like a model. You cannot catch them unawares. So a lady is said to be glamorous when everything about her is extraordinary.
Do you think it is painstaking to be glamorous?
Yes, it is. But for some people, it is a lifestyle which cannot be compromised. My husband, for instance, loves to look good each hour of the day and all through the week. You cannot catch him off guard without being properly dressed up, to the extent that he does not go downstairs to re-park a car without being fully dressed. He is always mostly in suit. It is so for such people. It is their nature.
When you travel like you said you do, do you do so for business or pleasure?
Most times, I combine both in order to bring down the expenses. I buy my materials in London, Dubai, America and I sell my products there too. Over the years I have been able to have a North American lady who sells my hats in Atlanta, Georgia. She has done very well to market and sell the brand. I have appeared on cover pages of many American publications and on Fox television and other television stations to discuss about my hats.
How about exhibitions?
I have participated in several; I have gone to exhibitions in America, South Africa, Australia and so many other places. It was while I was moving around like this that I was opportune to meet with US President Obama’s wife, Michelle, who got attracted to my hats. It was dream come true.
You are also the Welfare Officer for the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria also known as FADAN. Tell us, has FADAN been relevant?
I have been a member of FADAN for more than 20 years now. I met Funmi Ajila, who is now our current president way back. Then it was being managed by Aunty Abah Folawiyo. She was the one that introduced me to FADAN. What the association does is to bring all the fashion designers under an umbrella to present to the whole world what we do. Fashion is not just entertainment, it is also a business. That is what FADAN wants the public to know. In the past, fashion used to be entertainment with fashion shows and the like. Now FADAN is doing business, serious business whereby fashion designing can become a foreign income earner for the country, just as crude oil is at present.
Nigerian fashion, fabrics, dress sense, should be an attraction for Nigerians to make money from. Fashion employs a lot of people; it takes people off the street into serious jobs and utilisation of talent. FADAN as a body makes us to have a common voice to gain the attention of the government, mentoring the youth because they are our future and strength, the ones that will continue when we go down in age.
Is FADAN successfully doing these?
Yes, FADAN is not just running, we are actually flying right now, at the top. We recently had an exceptional runway, which was well celebrated.
But we do not really see many hat designers around, or are you the only one?
No, there are many hat designers around. A lot of people many years ago joined but people joined for so many reasons. Some came to enjoy that boom, grabbed the money and perhaps moved on. But mine has been a calling. It is what God ordained for me. The people who moved on after grabbing a little money did so perhaps because they suddenly realised their calling in another direction. But some others are still with us in FADAN. Now, we are processing a mall where we will have opportunity for mass production. We are now at that stage.
Tell us about your first car
I cannot remember, I have been driving from my father’s house. I come from a privileged background. My father was a permanent secretary in the ministry while I was a child. He later moved higher in social status. My background indeed helped shaped person that I am today. We were brought up in God’s way.
A few things you remember about your childhood?
I used to have bow legs, so that made me shy. People who knew me then are shocked when they see my stretched out legs. I also used to be a Tom-boy! That is what they called me in school. Also back in school then, we were the ones that started fashion shows, wearing jeans with caps and carrying big bags (laughs).
If you weren’t into making hats, what else would you have done?
If I wasn’t doing hats, I’m sure I would have been an entertainer. My children are already showing the flair for entertainment.
Congratulations to Grace Chito Mark the hat maker
Credit: Paul ukpabio’s blog